Public concerns about fracking have shaped opinion about new technologies regarded as vital to achieving UK climate targets, a new study has revealed.
Researchers at Cardiff University found that controversies over fracking made people doubt the safety or effectiveness of techniques to remove carbon dioxide (CO2), such as bioenergy with carbon capture, direct air capture and enhanced weathering.
The study, published in the journal Risk Analysis, is based on focus groups held in Cardiff, Norwich and rural Norfolk to discover what people thought about carbon removal technologies.
The work was carried out before the government moratorium on fracking in England. This was imposed in November 2019, following earthquakes induced by fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire and is still in force.
Nearly two years ago, the government’s adviser on climate change, the Climate Change Committee, said carbon capture and storage was a necessity, not an option, for reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
“But they told us it was safe”
The study revealed a sense among participants that fracking advice had been shown to be “flawed or influenced by vested interests”. As a result, there was a lack of trust in assurances from experts, particularly on earthquakes. This was summed up by the phrase “but they told us it was safe”.
The researchers found:
- Participants often mentioned fracking, unprompted, as an example of negative consequences of emerging technologies
- The fracking controversy made people worry that scientists would be unable to predict and control risks in other techniques
- There was a lack of trust in the abilities and motivations of scientists, experts and policymakers on CO2 removal, particularly if they downplay risk
The study concluded:
“Our results indicate that perceptions of fracking may have impacted attitudes to non‐fracking technologies, in communities spatially and socially distant from any shale industry activity.
“Individuals with no direct experience of the fracking controversy used its negative connotations to draw similar negative conclusions about CO2 removal technologies, despite the fact that (technically speaking) the similarities between fracking and the three technologies we discussed are very limited.”
Participants felt strongly that decision-making on fracking in the UK was unfair, the study found. A government minister overturned the local refusal of planning permission to Cuadrilla, the only company to carry out high volume hydraulic fracturing in the UK.
The researchers said:
“this impacted how they felt about the potential for adequate procedural justice for other technologies.”
The researchers concluded that a lack of social licence to operate for the UK fracking industry contributed to delays and the moratorium. They said:
“policy should be extremely wary of similar effects extending to other technologies.”
- Experts, developers, and industry should take people’s concerns seriously
- As a priority, the planning process should be perceived to be fair
- Public concerns should influence the development of technologies and policy
- Communities should be “given genuine voice in consultation over issues that affect them”
“There is also a need to ensure that people do not feel as if risks are being managed and communicated by vested interests, or that solutions are being imposed from above onto unwilling and ignored communities.”
On CO2 removal, they advised:
[scientists, developers, industry and government] “should not assume that simply downplaying or obscuring risks is the pragmatic route to take, even though this might seem tempting where scientific uncertainty still exists.”
But They Told Us It Was Safe! Carbon Dioxide Removal, Fracking, and Ripple Effects in Risk Perceptions
Emily Cox, Nick Pidgeon, Elspeth Spence
2 March 2021